Not so long ago, during one of the informal chats which invariably follow his media briefings, Chris Wilder found himself wondering out loud.
Why, he asked, do so many teams refuse to attack Manchester City? What is it, despite Pep Guardiola’s vast array of firepower, that persuades opponents to simply sit back and invite pressure? Surely it is possible to devise a better gameplan than that?
The question proved beyond the assembled journalists who, pens and microphones placed down on the table, simply shrugged their shoulder and smiled. But Wilder’s ability to conjure an answer could decide Sheffield United’s fate at Fulham tonight.
Slaviša Jokanović’s side, unbeaten on home soil since January 6 and fourth in the Championship table, might not boast the same depth of talent or financial resources as the Premier League leaders. Indeed, in neither category do they even come close. But at Championship level, the Londoners are one of the most fluent attacking teams in the division and, as such, are capable of denting the visitors’ own top six hopes.
“We’re playing Fulham away on a Tuesday night, in London,” Wilder reminded yesterday. “The club has spent enough time languishing in League One playing teams that I won’t name but you can write down. “These are fantastic games. It’s going to be tough and they will be big favourites. If they say ‘yes’ then possibly they should win. But if they don’t and we do, if we do things right and try to hurt them, then we can get a result.”
The 35th match of United’s 46 game season promises to enthrall the purists. Like Jokanović, Wilder demands his players start on the front foot and surge forward at every opportunity. Rocking back on your heels is, according to their footballing gospel, a blasphemous offence. That commitment to creativity and entertainment was highlighted when the two teams met at Bramall Lane four months ago. Fulham won 5-4 during a fixture which saw both completely abandon any notion of defending in favour of indulging in a dramatic slugfest. However, despite keeping the crowd on the edge of their seats, the scoreline also proved something had gone systemically wrong. Neither United or Fulham, given the respect which exists between the two sets of coaching staff, are likely to make the same mistake again.
“For a long period of that game, we were in it,” Wilder said. “When they broke, with the players they’ve got, our supporters recognised we were playing a good side. The supporters walked away and thought’ that’s a proper game of football’.
“You see teams on the box and even in the Premier League not wanting to win. Sometimes you just have to hold your hand-up and say you’re up against some really good players. The scoreline maybe flattered us a little bit and maybe we were a little bit to gung-ho. But it was a proper game for the fans.”
Nevertheless Wilder, whose methods were praised by Jokanović following that memorable fixture, insisted United can both contain and create during his latest media press conference. The threat posed by Ryan Sessegnon, Fulham’s £40m rated youngster, was referenced. Likewise their manager’s fellow Serb Aleksandar Mitrovic. But with Billy Sharp, Leon Clarke and Mark Duffy among their number, United also plan to test the hosts’ rearguard whenever a chance presents itself. Unlike Antonio Conte, Wilder is not prepared to talk down his squad or convince them to surrender the initiative as Chelsea did so meekly against City on Sunday.
“Our season won’t be decided on Tuesday night,” Wilder insisted. “If we play well and produce another performance after Reading, then that’s a positive. This is a step up, the table shows that. But they know that. They know Fulham are an outstanding team who will take a lot of stopping. But I can’t wait and I’m confident the players will be of the same mindset.”
Eighth in the table, four places and seven points behind Fulham, United travel to the capital on the back of a 3-1 victory at the Madejski Stadium and, following the postponement of Saturday’s meeting with Burton Albion, rested and refreshed. Leon Clarke, who scored a hat-trick against the Londoners’ earlier this term, could miss the game with a hamstring complaint but James Wilson’s injured ankle has healed.
“They’ve had to jigsaw a team together and we have had to as well,” Wilder said. “That’s the art of management, building a team with what’s available to you. Our group has been assembled in a different way to a lot of others. But I still think it’s a good group.”